What would happen to health care if a million new patients with just one of many now incurable and largely untreated diseases flooded the system, relying on medicine that could cost $70,000?
It might happen. Actually, it’s more than desirable that it should happen.
In one instance, a million or more patients who suffer from the devastating, life-robbing disease known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), or myalgic encephalomyelitis, struggle through days of almost total incapacitation, disorientation, pain and despair, clinging to hope that science will rescue them. All that’s known is that like AIDS, it’s a disease of the immune system.
The horror of this affliction is almost indescribable. I’ve been writing and broadcasting about these patients for several years and never have I seen such extended suffering, lives hollowed out, every tomorrow to be feared, the slightest departure from strict routines of inactivity to be met with punishing suffering.
The mother of an afflicted teenager told me that for New Year, her daughter went out for amid celebration. That exertion cost her two weeks in bed.
My friend and colleague (we host a YouTube channel, mecfsalert), Deborah Waroff, a New York-based writer, has been afflicted for 23 years and has seen her life confiscated. Like other patients she lives in a prison of her body with painful memories of when she was well. The body hurts, the memory tortures. Sleep does not refresh and long hours in bed do not heal.
Sufferers, held together in their pain by the Internet, trade sad notes. Going the rounds now is Winston Churchill’s statement in old age his life was finished but not ended. One sufferer e-mails me that she prays every night that she won’t wake up in the morning.
Patients groups say suicide rates are high. Determining the morbidity rate is a challenge because sufferers die from opportunistic infections rather than from CFS. In this, and other ways, it resembles AIDS and diabetes.
So far, the burden has been carried more by families and loved ones than by the health care industry. This is because there is no diagnosis per se for CFS, and no cure.
Dr. Andreas Kogelnik of the Open Medicine Institute in Mountain View, Calif., says there are no “markers” for the disease. There is nothing in the blood, marrow or soft tissue that identifies the disease.
Therefore, diagnosing the disease is by elimination – a time-consuming undertaking that the present medical regime is ill-equipped to provide. “You can’t do much in 10 minutes,” Kolgelnik says, referring to average amount of time allotted to patients by doctors.
So this is a disease that, even without a cure, the medical establishment has already indicated that it cannot afford.
The matter of affordability, for example, has affected diagnosis and treatment severely in the United Kingdom. There the National Health Service, always struggling with budgets, has encouraged doctors to teat CFS as a psychosomatic condition related to depression. The patients hate this and only recently has the British Medical Research Council softened its position.
That other medical nostrum, diet and exercise, is favored in the UK, too, but not by patients. They write to me constantly pointing out that exercise is corporal punishment for them; a recipe for relapse.
With only under-funded research scattered across the country at clinics and universities, the picture is bleak. But there are two pinpricks of light: a Norwegian cancer drug, Rituxan, which has helped patients in Norway and Germany, and a drug that is still in clinical trials in the United States, Ampligen, which rebalances the immune system.
Even those who administer the drugs, like Dr. Derek Enlander in New York and Kogelnik in California, don’t hail them as panaceas but as hopeful pacesetters. Neither is available except to a few patients in trials. And cost? Ampligen costs about $25,000 for a year of treatment, and Rituxan comes in at a whopping $70,000.
A slew of other diseases await expensive cures. In the future health-care costs, no matter what the Supreme Court and the politicians do, are going to go up and up. To the sick and their families, any price is a small one.
For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate.